Libraries Really Mean it About Keeping Quiet


Here's a commentary from a mom who, while in theory likes that her local library takes patron privacy seriously, feels a bit put out by not being able to find out what her minor-aged sons have checked out.

as much as I'm not a big believer in the ''it takes a village'' approach to raising children, I think I'd welcome the well-timed call from my local librarian should he or she deem something on my son's check-out record a little ... curious. Like if one of my kids were checking out his 19th book about fertilizer, pipes and detonating devices in the last three weeks. Is that an ''extenuating circumstance?''

More from (Allentown, PA)


I was working in a public library when Columbine occured. This library's policy was to not reveal to the parent what the child had checked out. It was rarely an issue, but after the shootings, parents were coming in wanting to know what their children were reading. The shooters' parents were being held responsible by many, and this prompted parents to action. They were very angry about the policy, and the library was forced to change it under pressure from the public.
The exact policy was that a parent couldn't know without the child's permission. So what usually happened was the parent came in with their child and forced them, through threat of punishment, to tell the circ clerk it was OK.
Meanwhile, a parent must sign for their child to get a card of their own, and the parent is FINANCIALLY RESPONSIBLE for whatever their child checks out and doesn't bring back. But they aren't allowed to know what it is. I'm sorry, but this is obsurd. How can a library force a person to pay for a replacement book and not tell them what it is? If they knew what it was, they might remember that that's the book they saw under their kid's bed when checking for monsters last week... As a side note, I had worked there at reference for quite a while before this happened, and I did NOT know this was the policy. I had been forced, with an MLS and reference experience, to go through a ridiculous orientation to learn "how to conduct a reference interview", yet this very vital policy was not covered. I had never heard of such a policy. I don't know that I ever did, but I wonder if any one ever happened to ask me at the reference desk to check their child's card... It was one of those very strict "you must stick to the division of responsibilities" organizations, but if there is no line at reference, and a long line at circ, do you honestly think I should refuse to help them? I wonder how many times I broke this policy I knew nothing about?

And some of us find it unreasonable to attempt to ban information or ideas. So we find you unreasonable.So far, we've got the law on our side. You don't like it, breed some more little people to brainwash to your way of thinking, and vote to get it changed.Hopefully people with my beliefs will move the hell out when people like you get the majority, and you can have fun trying to build new technology while outlawing new ideas.When you try and supercede the law, and enforce your views on other people (like the view of a poor person with a gun who decides he wants your money), then I class you as a criminal.-- Ender, Duke_of_URL

Is a twelve-year-old, a fourteen year old, or a seventeen year old a "child" whose privacy should be routinely violated at the discretionary whim of a librarian?

Does reading about the forbidden always imply an intent to engage in behavior? Does reading about the forbidden actually function as a release valve and proxy? Doesn't the First Amendment stand for the proposition that there is no such thing as "thought crime?"

When do a librarian's professional and ethical responsibilities terminate? What justifies ignoring those responsibilities? If physicians and lawyers and counselors can keep confidentiality as professionals, why shouldn't librarians? And why shouldn't that duty of confidentiality be offered to minors, especially older minors?

Some quick responses to points raised this thread:

  • If your state library records confidentiality law imposes a duty of confidentiality, and if you, as a librarian subject to that law, reveal protected information about your users without the requisite court order or legal process, you have violated the law and opened up your library to possible legal action.

  • And yes, those confidentiality laws apply to youth, too. Youth have legal rights. Youth have First Amendment rights. And the library profession's ethical standards affirm those rights.

  • Columbine is a red herring. The young men involved in the shooting had open, home-based access to the Internet, and engaged in behavior in their homes that might have raised a red flag about their future behavior. Libraries, and library usage, had little or nothing to do with the shootings at Columbine. Forcing adolescents to consent to the violation of their confidentiality does not engender trust nor solve the problem. Indeed, it simply teaches youth to keep even more secrets from the adults in their lives.

  • Financial responsibility is a red herring. "Being a taxpayer" doesn't entitle one to summarily terminate another's legal right to confidentiality, whether that right is conferred by law or by library policy. If financial responsibility is prerequisite to maintaining a library user's confidentiality, then make each individual financially responsible for their borrowed books, regardless of age. (It's not like adults don't steal or lose materials, after all.) A fifteen-year-old who can't get the books needed for a school project or log onto the Internet because of fines or overdues will learn a quick lesson in financial responsibility.

  • Libraries, and librarians, do not act in loco parentis. In loco parentis is a legal term of art and implies a legal relationship. It's not simply acting in some ham-handed way to impose one's personal viewpoint of suitability on someone else's child – it's assuming a legal duty to care for the minor, and carries along with that responsibility real, potential legal liabilities. Want to drive a city attorney crazy? Tell him or her you're a public employee acting in loco parentis when the law doesn’t impose that relationship on the public employee or the city.

  • Finally, children and teens rarely build bombs. They are far more likely to be using library resources to explore issues about their fears, their identity, or their sexuality, research that teens in particular do not share with their parents for understandable reasons. If a teen is trying to find out about being gay or lesbian, or if he or she is trying to find out about alternative religious beliefs or alternative political beliefs, or if they're trying to learn about sex and birth control and STDs, they're entitled to every inch of privacy given to adult library patrons. And if they're a child or a teen trying to find out how to get out of a physically, sexually, or mentally abusive situation, protecting their confidentiality may be life-saving.

Its true that the law is prohibiting the sale but the question is why is the law there? Where did it come from? What was the thinking behind it?

Especially since different people will have different opinions about what's acceptable or not.

People keep saying that and for as far it goes its true. Canadians think mayo on a hamburger is acceptable while many Americans do not. Some countries have no problem with public kissing while in some places its frowned on like in India where recently an Israeli couple were fined for kissing at their wedding.

It is also true that there are organizations such as NAMBLA where men agree that its okay to sex with young buys. But while its certainly true that they have different opinions from most of us about what's acceptable it is also true that if they act on those opinions they will be placed in jail for their behavior. So obviously there are instances where simply because people disagree on what's acceptable doesn't prevent us from creating rules that prohibit what most think is unacceptable.

Since books are considered to be ideas and cannot truly be regulated in any effective way it does fall to society put certain pressures where necessary to decrease what's considered by most to be unacceptable and increase what's considered acceptable. It happens in chain stores like Wal-Mart through economic pressure and it happens in libraries through community support or lack of.

Its true that many of the challenged titles out there are open to debate and that many do not deserve the attention they get. But to those who think books like Rainbow Party fall under the "different opinions" category, I consider those people to be unreasonable.

It should be no different then a gas station or liquor store that runs afoul of the law for selling cigarettes and alcohol to minors.

You mean it's illegal for you to lend books on bomb-making to minors? Because that's what's stopping the gas station and the liquor store: the law.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that everything that's not forbidden is mandatory, or even that ethical behaviour and legal behaviour cover the same territory, but saying that I need to take responsibility for what your child is permitted to borrow is something about which reasonable people can differ. Especially since different people will have different opinions about what's acceptable or not.

We are not selecting the books for them.... well in effect we are selecting the books for them. That is why there are no books on bomb making in my library.

I think we exercise reasonable care in selecting materials, the liquor store or 7-11 that sells gin or smokes to kids is not exercising due care. Of course if mom went in to the corner store and asked if they sold her kid a pack of Camels I doubt she would get a rational explaination of the policy that they don't tell one customer what another buys. Mom would probably get some salty words and a boot in the rear.

5) Libraries are not acting in loco parentis. We don't want to parent your children, nor do we have the time to do so. You gave birth to them they are your responsibility.

I agree with some of your other points but I think we are acting in loco parentis. As long as we continue to let them come in without a parent and use our services free of charge then we take a certain amount of responsibility. It should be no different then a gas station or liquor store that runs afoul of the law for selling cigarettes and alcohol to minors.

Several things are simply wrong with this article.
1) The library should never have even described the books to the mother. If it is aginst the rules to reveal patron records then it is against the rules.

2) The ALA patron bill of rights is not law.

3) People who say "I am the taxpayer," are without fail arseholes. Here is your fecking dime - your portion of my salary now go to hell.

4) If you don't know what your children are reading, or you fail to trust your children enough to let them make their own decisions then you are a bad parent.

5) Libraries are not acting in loco parentis. We don't want to parent your children, nor do we have the time to do so. You gave birth to them they are your responsibility.

6) There are not 19 books about bomb making in my library, and I doubt there are that may in any other public library. In fact there are no books about bomb making in my library. Stop blowing things out of proportion. We don't peruse your records or those of your children to decide if your borrowing habits are within normal limits. We are not interested, we don't have the time, and we don't keep those records.

7) If your kid goes Columbine then you deserve to be vilified. Pay a little more attention to your kids and less time cranking out poorly founded magazine articles. You are the one who said you wanted to parent your own children, STFU and do it.

After I posted the above comment, I mentioned it to my husband...
He said, "Wouldn't it be funny if the parent found out their child was checking out 'The Dummies' Guide to Killing Your Parents'?"


Actually you don't have the law on your side. There is no law requiring a library to buy or hold onto a book.

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